SKOPJE, Macedonia, April 9 (UPI) -- The Socialists and the Union of Free Democrats won the first round of elections in Hungary over the weekend, narrowly defeating the center-right coalition led by Fidesz (the Hungarian Civic Party) and the Hungarian Democratic Forum.
Of the 185 seats decided, the Hungarian Socialist Party and the Free Democrats ended with 98. Another 176 seats are left to a second round. The parties then cast proportional votes to determine the composition of the remaining 25.
If they win the runoff on April 21 as well, fervent coalition-making is currently under way, the Socialists will lead this prosperous country of 10 million people into the European Union. This would not be their first taste of power, though. They ruled Hungary between 1994 and 1998.
Many Free Democrats found the experience of allying with the Socialists traumatic and believe that it tarnished the party's reputation irreversibly. Some are even pushing to team up with Fidesz, an unlikely move because the party campaigned on an anti-Fidesz ticket.
A two-party system has emerged from these elections in which a record 71 percent of eligible voters participated, a sign of the maturing of the Hungarian political scene. Rabid right-wingers, like the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, or MIEP, were trounced. This removed an obstacle from Hungary's accession to the EU.
Their leader, Istvan Csurka, ordered his acolytes to vote for Prime Minister Viktor Orban, hoping to recreate 1998's reversal of fortunes. The Socialists then also won the first round, but lost the elections in the second.
Urban residents, mainly in Budapest, may have punished the ruling coalition, the Nepszava newspaper said. Fidesz's open contempt of intellectuals, liberals, the media, and city-dwellers has often translated into withheld or truncated budgets and bureaucratic obstructionism.
Zoltan Pokorni, Fidesz's president, said the rural vote would be crucial in the second round.
"We advise our supporters in the provinces to take part in the second round," he said. "Their will should not be thwarted by Budapest."
Such was the disenchantment with Orban that the stock exchange surged almost 4 percent on the news that the Socialists, who promised less interference in the economy, won the first round. During its previous term in office, Hungary's stock market enjoyed an uninterrupted bull run. The forint, which was propped up by Hungary's preference for a strong currency under Fidesz, weakened on the news, however.
Hungary's remarkable economic performance during Orban's reign, state interventionism notwithstanding, seems to have been utterly forgotten, though. The somewhat incredulous Socialist prime ministerial candidate, Peter Medgyessy, said, in his typical low-key manner: "We are very happy with the confidence that has been expressed by investors. We can guarantee predictability for the economy."
But voters were after justice as well as predictability. Inequality in capitalistic Hungary grew under Orban. In post-communist societies, evenly spread poverty is often preferred to unevenly spread riches. Gnawing envy may have led to electoral retribution. Orban was accused of authoritarianism, cronyism, and patronage.
Fidesz has been denigrated as merely enjoying the long-delayed fruits of painful reforms the Socialists have instituted -- for which the latter paid dearly in the last elections in 1998. The chairman of the Free Democrats, Gabor Kuncze, already cautioned against "stealth privatization" of various state assets, including many farms and a retail chain. The government, he warned, should act as a caretaker.
Orban's escalating rhetoric worked against him. It began to unsettle foreign investors and EU commissioners alike. And, above all, it did not resonate with Hungary's increasingly sophisticated and cosmopolitan society.
He typecast himself as a rustic, traditionalist, anti-intellectual, nationalistic, and down-to-earth populist folk hero. Hungary is urban, non-conservative, intellectual and European. It feared a possible Fidesz-MIEP rule.
Medgyessy couldn't have been more different. He joined the Socialist party only lately and reluctantly. He worked as a besuited banker in Societe Generale in Paris. He is a technocrat. The Financial Times described his performance in a debate with Orban as "calm and factual."
Rural voters may yet turn the tide. If enough Socialist voters stay home on April 21, now that MIEP is no more, Fidesz could still pull a last-minute rabbit out of the hostile ballot box. But whoever wins, the right will never be the same again. It has been humbled and warned. Be part of a liberal Europe -- or cease to be altogether.